Everyone loves to hear that their vice of choice is really helping them lead healthier lives.
Here’s the latest on vice research: moderate drinkers, those who consumed 1-3 drinks per day, were shown to live longer than those who abstained completely or drank heavily. Having just got back from the pub, I was happy to read this, but is it really the alcohol that helps people live longer?
Studying humans is difficult
It is particularly difficult to study humans because a study can only control so many factors of their lives. Participants may agree to control what they eat or drink or pills that they take, but they cannot control factors such as income, work and relationship stress or where they live.
It’s great to hear that there may be a link between a little bit of drinking and a long life. However, many possible factors that moderate drinkers possess could also contribute to longevity. To name a few possibilities…
- Moderate drinkers have the money to drink, which means they are more likely to be able to afford decent food and health insurance. These contribute to health and longevity.
- They presumably have friends/family to drink with, which makes people happy and contributes to a longer lifespan.
- If they drink in moderation, they have some semblance of self-control, so they likely do other possibly harmful behaviors in moderation as well.
These factors (diet, income, social ties, happiness, self-control, health) that are also linked to longevity are called confounding factors. For instance, since it has been shown that diet plays a part in lifespan, it may actually be the eating habits of moderate drinkers that cause them to live longer, not the moderate drinking. This needs to be accounted for. Not understanding confounding factors can lead to incorrect conclusions.
For example, if data is gathered about average global temperature and the number of Google searches per day from 1998 to 2008, one could conclude that the increase in Google searches caused the increase in global temperature. This is of course complete nonsense. Time is really what links these two. They are not directly linked. Time is a confounding factor here.
Not accounting for confounding factors leads to BAD SCIENCE, and bad science is the enemy of everyone. Bad science is all too prevalent in research, especially that funded by special interests.
This new study accounted for some confounding factors associated with moderate drinking, and it still showed that moderate drinkers had a longer lifespan than others.
The study set-up and results
The study noted the daily alcohol consumption, social and economic factors, former problem drinking status, health factors and social-behavioral factors of 1,824 adults aged from 55 to 65. After 20 years, it was checked to see if the participants were still alive.
Only adjusting for gender and age (not other confounding factors), abstainers were twice as likely to have died than moderate drinkers. Abstainers were also more likely to die than even heavy drinkers.
When the additional confounding factors were taken into account, moderate drinkers still came out on top. Abstainers were still 50 percent more likely to die than moderate drinkers.
To the pub then! Wait…
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should run off to the pub and start drinking moderately if you are abstaining.
The study did not include lifelong abstainers. It is possible that moderate drinking may help curb cardiovascular disease, the number one killer in the US, by raising good cholesterol. The study found that (non-lifelong) abstainers were more likely to be obese, be smokers, have been a problem drinker in the past and not have good family and friend support, all which increase the risk for cardiovascular disease in some way. If you are abstaining and at low risk for cardiovascular disease, moderate drinking may not do you any good.
Since the subjects were older, aged 55 to 65, it is possible that there were people who were moderate drinkers and died before the age of 55, and therefore, could not participate in the study. If this were true, the results could give false information.
What should you do? If you really want to increase your longevity, get those confounding factors working for you: clean up your diet, eliminate stress, get some exercise…and maybe relax and have a pint occasionally.
Source: Charles J. Holahan, Kathleen K. Schutte, et al. Late-Life Alcohol Consumption and 20-Year Mortality, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, Aug. 2010.
Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons by gemma.amor